Dressing Olivia Pope

Next to Game of Thrones, the collective favorite show of this office might be Scandal. And if you watch it, you understand why. It's so. good. And w
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Next to Game of Thrones, the collective favorite show of this office might be Scandal. And if you watch it, you understand why. It's so. good. And w
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Next to Game of Thrones, the collective favorite show of this office might be Scandal. And if you watch it, you understand why. It's so. good. And while the show's costumes are great (especially Kerry Washington's character Olivia Pope's), a period or fantasy show like Game of Thrones is far more likely to be recognized for its costumes--and likely will tomorrow, when this year's Emmy nominations are announced.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a ton of research, creativity, and work that goes into costume designing a contemporary show like Scandal. Because trust us, there is.

We caught up with costume designer Lyn Paolo, who's also worked on West Wing and Shameless to learn about some of the challenges (like making Olivia Pope look 100% flawless in a realistic way) and some of the research (yep, Michelle Obama is involved) that goes into making Scandal a truly fantastic show to watch--fashion-wise as much as plot twist-wise. We also learned about some exciting new up-and-coming projects (like a possible Scandal clothing line!). Read on to hear what she had to say.

Fashionista: What was your initial vision for Olivia's look? Lyn Paolo: I said to [the producers in an initial meeting, before getting hired], ‘I don’t want to do what I did on the West Wing. Whomever this character ends up being played by, she’s her own person and, if I get hired, I would really strive to do something different and bring a fashion sensibility to the character. I would like for her to be a beacon of light.’

[After the meeting,] I was really surprised to get the call because I had such strong opinions and sometimes producers don’t like that. But Shonda [Rhimes] loved it; she called me the next day and said 'we really want you to do it.' So that’s how it began and it was sort of a battle from there. We had to battle the network. They liked the idea but they had huge reservations about the palette because it’s difficult to light--especially for an African-American lady.

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Well we know who won the battle: Olivia is pretty much always wearing white. Why was the lighting a challenge? It's difficult to light stark contrasting colors...directors of photography like everything to sort of be the same. For me, color is part of the story, and I was very fortunate that Oliver Bokelberg who is our DP, embraced my idea and was willing to spend the time to light. When you have Kerry standing in a room with nine other people and they're all in their tones, she pops in white; and to balance that light is very difficult.

What research or references did you use for Olivia? Because Olivia Pope was a different kind of character than we’ve seen on TV before--an exceptionally powerful woman--I drew my references from fashion. I looked at images of Lauren Hutton from the '70s and I had Kate Hepburn on the board--she always wore pants. Even silly things like I had Queen Elizabeth I. I just got a bunch of iconic images of really strong women through history and it was more fashion-based then it was based on any previous [political] administration.

At the same time, when you’re a strong women in any business, I think a lot of people can find that intimidating and so I wanted to soften Olivia Pope's edge a bit.

Is that why you put Olivia in so many light colors? To soften her or make her seem less threatening? It started out as being just a visual thing and evolved into being something about femininity. You can be strong and amazing at your job--but why do we have to dress like men? Kerry and I talked a lot about that in our fittings. We didn't want her to dress like a man, but we also wanted her to wear the pants--she wears pants. She doesn’t wear a skirt unless it's in a flashback because I just thought that was too on the nose and kind of boring. You want a girl to be feminine so you put her in a skirt? So really what we played with was the color, the palette, and the softness of the fabrics. She wears structure but the fabrics always have an amazing drape to them, which is why we used a lot of Armani in the beginning, because you can’t really beat those Italian fabrics for movement.

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What other designers have you used for Olivia? We’ve moved on a little bit now [from Armani]. We use more Dior, peplums, soft edges--more the new look and feeling. We use a lot of Valentino; we use a lot of different designers now--it's always me ripping pages out of fashion magazines and luckily we have a great relationship with most of the designers and they send me their look books before anything hits the stores and I work directly with them, so we try to be a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of getting things before they hit the stores.

A few times, she's worn these '50s style white gloves but in a modern, casual way. What was the impetus for those? We had this great Ferragamo coat that I was in love with and it had a little cape and three-quarter length sleeves and I just thought it would look great with elbow-length gloves. The first time I put Kerry in that, it was the episode after Fitz got shot and she’s coming to the hospital, and I actually got in a little bit of trouble with Shonda. Shonda was like, 'She looks too good; why did you put her in gloves? She looks like she's out of the 1950s or something.'

Where did the gloves come from? I had the gloves made because I had a really hard time finding gloves in L.A. that weren’t just black for eveningwear. I said to Kerry, 'Wouldn't it be great if we started incorporating these? I think it's a great fashion statement,' and we did. Actually, Vera Wang had told Kerry she loved the gloves, and gloves are a big part of her collection now.

Something I've always wondered is how Olivia has time to shop--is that something you think about?

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Something I've always wondered is how Olivia has time to shop--is that something you think about? In our heads--and we’ve talked about it in fittings--we assume that she has someone that does it for her. That's one of the reasons that Shonda was concerned about the gloves is we always want to feel like she’s a real person. We’re not doing Sex and the City; it’s not about wearing something that's just off the runway. We want to strike a balance between her always looking great but looking like a real person. I always say if you walked into her closet, she’d have 30 suits and you could wear any of them with any of the blouses and the shoes and the colors all work together because she doesn’t have time. We stick to the same purses; we try really hard to not make her too frivolous. She’s not going to run into Dolce & Gabbana and buy one of their bright florals. She has to walk into a room and demand and get respect and I don’t think she has time in her life to worry, so she’s smart about her closet.

Do you work directly with designers on pieces much? I know that this year we’re going to work with designers directly to create gowns that will be based on archived images from several designers. And the gown will be built just for the show and worn by Olivia Pope.

That sounds amazing. What I would also like to do this year, 'cause I’ve been pitching it to everyone in New York and the producers are on board with it and so is Kerry---is if just for a few episodes we do Olivia in just one designer, including a gown. So we would do one episode where she's head to toe Armani--it isn’t Armani, I’m just using it as a reference--and the week before it airs we’re going to do a big media campaign.

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What about Mellie's style? Who or what was your inspiration for her? We did start with her with images of many First Ladies, and Mellie’s charcter is a little tricky because a lot of the audience has a real visceral reaction to her, but I always feel like she and Olivia are the same woman because they're both driven and brilliant, but Mellie’s agenda is very different and how do we show that difference? There are constraints obviously about being First Lady. She can’t have a lot of cleavage and all those sorts of rules.

But I did look at Michelle Obama and I do love that Mrs. Obama wears a range of designers--she can go from a Jason Wu to J. Crew--and that’s what we tried to do with Mellie. We tried to keep her in dresses so she’s the antithesis of Olivia, but we also tried to have a whole range. As the season went on, I started dressing her more and more in pastels because I find that highly amusing that she’s in baby blues and pinks and she’s being so Machiavellian. and then we played with color towards the end--whenever she was really upset or angry she was in red; when she was really supremely jealous we had her in green.

Do you think Scandal could get an Emmy nom for costumes? Not particularly because I just feel like the Emmy voting people tend to only ever vote for period pieces. And honestly this show for me is sort of a joyful experience. If we get a nod, we would appreciate it and be grateful but we have no aspirations in that.

Lyn Paolo after winning an Emmy

Lyn Paolo after winning an Emmy

Could you ever see designing a Scandal clothing line? We’ve been talking about it. We’ve been talking about how we could create something aspirational for the audience--like, something that Olivia Pope might wear--but not so aspirational that it was out of reach for most of our gladiators. We’re just throwing around ideas with several different people, and getting a sense if we can do it and learning about the parameters. We're trying to figure out how to do it so that it's not too out of the price range that most people can afford, and yet somehow create something for people to have a piece of the Olivia Pope look.

Click through for some of Olivia's best looks.

All photos: Courtesy ABC